The four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are represented in the Christian tradition by their symbols. These symbols are living things. Thus the man/angel refers to the gospel, according to Matthew, the lion to Mark, the ox/bull/ bull to Luke, and finally the eagle to John.
These symbols have been used since the beginning of Christianity. The origin of the use of these symbols can be found in the Old Testament, in particular in the visions that the prophets have received.
The symbols of the evangelists are based on texts from the Old Testament. Four animals appear in a number of visions of prophets.
Four animals with Daniel
Daniel lived in Babel at the time of the Exile. Daniel received multiple visions. Four animals are found in one of them. These four animals do not quite match the four symbols that are later used for the evangelists.
Daniel lifted up and said, I had a vision in the night and beheld, the four winds of heaven upset the vast sea, and four great beasts rose from the sea, one different from the other. The first looked like a lion, and it had eagle wings. [..] And behold, another animal, the second, resembled a bear; it erected on one side, and three ribs were in its mouth between its teeth, and they spoke to him like this: get up, eat a lot of meat.
Then I saw, and behold another animal, like a panther; it had four bird wings on its back and four heads. And he was given dominion. Then I saw in the night views and see, a fourth animal, terrible, frightening and powerful; it had large iron teeth: it ate and ground, and what was left, slowed it down with its legs; and this beast differed from all the previous ones, and it had ten horns (Daniel 7: 2-8).
The four symbols in Ezekiel
The prophet Ezekiel lived in the sixth century BC. He passed on his message to the exiles in Babel. His message takes the form of dramatic actions, god words, and visions. There are four animals in Ezekiel’s calling vision.
And I saw and behold, a stormwind came from the north, a heavy cloud with shimmering fire and surrounded by a gleam; inside, in the middle of the fire, was what looked like shiny metal. And in the middle of it was what looked like four beings, and this was their appearance: they had the form of a man, each had four faces, and each of the four wings. […] And as for their faces, those of all four on the right looked like that of a man and that of a lion; with all four on the left that of a cow; all four also had the face of an eagle (Ezekiel 1: 4-6 & 10).
There are many speculations about the meaning of the four animals that appear in the calling vision of Ezekiel. In ancient Eastern art with influences from Egypt and Mesopotamia, among other things, images of four-winged creatures with one or more animal faces are known. These are the so-called ‘heavenly carriers’, beings who carry heaven (Dijkstra, 1986).
The bull represents the earth, the lion, the fire, the eagle, the sky, and the human the water. They are the constellations of the four cardinal points of the bull, the lion, the Aquarius, and of the fourth, the eagle (Ameisenowa, 1949). A few chapters further in Ezekiel, we reencounter four animals.
As for the wheels, they were called Swirls. Each had four faces. The first was that of a cherub, and the second was that of a man, the third was the face of a lion, the fourth was that of an eagle (Ezekiel 10:13)
The four symbols in Revelation
The apostle John receives several visions on Patmos. In one of those faces, he sees the throne of the very highest, the throne of God. He sees four animals around the throne.
And in the midst of the throne and around the throne were four beasts, full of eyes in front and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast was like a bovine, and the third beast was like a man’s, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four creatures had six wings each before them and were full of eyes all around and within, and they had rest day and night (Revelation 4: 6b-8a).
There are four animals around the throne. These four animals are the lion, ox, the face of a human, and the eagle. They are all four signs of the Zodiac. They form the number of the cosmos. In these four animals, you can recognize the four animals from the vision of Ezekiel.
The four symbols in Judaism
There is a saying from rabbi Berekhja and rabbit Bun that says: “the most powerful among the birds is the eagle, the most powerful among the tame animals is the bull, the most powerful of the wild animals are the lion, and the most powerful of all is the man. A Midrash says: ‘man is exalted among the creatures, the eagle among the birds, the bull among the tame animals, the lion among the wild animals; all have received dominion, and yet they are under the victory cart of the Eternal” (Midrash Shemoth R.23) (Nieuwenhuis, 2004).
The early Christian interpretation
These animals have taken on a different meaning in the later Christian tradition. They have become the symbols of the four evangelists. We first find this interpretation in Irenaeus van Lyon (around 150 AD), albeit in a slightly different form than in the later ecclesiastical tradition (Matthew – angel, Mark – eagle, Luke – ox and John – lion).
Later on, Augustine of Hippo also describes the four symbols for the four evangelists, but in a slightly different order (Matthew – lion, Mark – angel, Luke – ox, and John – eagle). At Pseudo-Athanasius and Saint Jerome, we find the distribution of the symbols among the evangelists as they finally became known in the Christian tradition (Matthew – man/angel, Mark – lion, Luke – ox and John – eagle).
The meaning of the four symbols for the evangelists
The evangelist Matthew
The first gospel, that of the writer Matthew, begins with a genealogy, the human family tree of Jesus Christ. Because of this human beginning, Matthew got the symbol human.
The evangelist Marcus
The second gospel in the Bible is written by Mark. Since at the beginning of his gospel Mark writes about John the Baptist and his stay in the desert and because he also mentions that Jesus stayed in the desert Mark was given the lion as a symbol. In the time of Jesus there were lions in the desert.
The evangelist Lukas
Luke was given the ox as a symbol because he talks about Zechariah who at the beginning of the third gospel makes a sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem.
The evangelist John
The fourth and final gospel is depicted with an eagle or eagle. This has to do with the high philosophical flight that this evangelist takes to pass on his message. From a distance (John writes later than the other evangelists), he describes the life and message of Jesus Christ with a sharp eye.